SEOUL - The man who has most to gain from the apparent decline of Jang Song Thaek, the second-most powerful figure in North Korea, is a party apparatchik who has been around the ruling Kim dynasty for decades but kept out of the limelight until three years ago.
Choe Ryong Hae now appears to be the most influential adviser to Kim Jong Un, the mercurial 30-year-old who heads the secretive nuclear-armed nation. That had been Jang's role, but South Korea's spy agency said on Tuesday that he had been removed from his official posts.
That fate could soon befall Choe as well, as Kim surrounds himself with more aides of his generation, according to analysts and defectors from the regime, often the only source of information for palace intrigue in Pyongyang.
But for now the 63-year-old is the influential political head of the military, largely because of the links forged by his father, who fought Japanese occupying forces alongside North Korea's founder-leader, Kim Il Sung.
Choe's family lived in the 'Forbidden City', the elite Pyongyang enclave that houses the top leadership, and he grew up with Kim Jong Il, who would later be the second of the Kim dynasty to rule the state.
"Choe's father was a former partisan who fought against colonial Japan together with Kim Il Sung," said Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector who previously worked at the United Front Department, a propaganda unit in the North's ruling party.
"So his bloodline is special. That's why the military couldn't oppose Choe's nomination as the army's director of the general political bureau."
There has been no confirmation or denial of the reports of Jang's eclipse - North Korea reveals few details of its leadership other than public adulation of the Kims. But experts who analyse North Korean media reports and official photographs for clues on the state's power structure say mentions of Jang have declined over several months, coinciding with an increase in references to Choe.